Dennis C. Sasso
Dennis C. Sasso

Tribute to a righteous gentile, teacher and friend

At a time when we are witnessing a surge in antisemitism and in expressions of religious and racial bigotry, the teachings of Professor Clark Williamson, a distinguished scholar in post-Shoah theology, Process philosophy, and New Testament interpretation, are worth pondering and taking to heart.

Clark was a scholar committed to eliminating anti-Judaism from the teachings of the Church.  He was a loving critic of his own Christian tradition and an architect of Jewish-Christian reconciliation. In his A Guest in the House Israel he confesses that “…anti-Judaism is an inherited ideology of which Christians tend to be unconscious until it is brought to their attention”. He describes the business of theology as bringing “the church to self-understanding, self-criticism and thereby to change its practice, which means, first, to change its speech”.  Clark was a serious scholar and a man of faith. He took words seriously, because they are not just words, but have implications and outcomes.

After a long and prolific teaching and writing career, Clark Williamson died on June 26, 2021.  Since 1967, Dr. Williamson had taught at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, where he also served as Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs until his retirement in 2002.  Clark studied with the renowned Paul Tillich at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, and served as his assistant for Volume III of his Systematic Theology.

I was honored to have had Clark as my teacher and dissertation advisor during my Doctoral program at Christian Theological Seminary.  For over two decades we taught together the course on “Dialogue Between Jews and Christians”, spoke at interfaith conferences, and co-led learning experiences for groups of graduate students at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Clark and his beloved wife, Barbara, who preceded him in death, were Sandy’s and my personal friends. Over many years, we dined, wined, worshipped, learned, and celebrated together.  They would periodically attend Shabbat services at the synagogue, especially to recite Kaddish on the yahrzeit of Barbara’s Jewish father, and then we would enjoy Shabbat dinner together.

When Sandy and I marked a special anniversary with our congregation, Beth-El Zedeck, Clark spoke words of tribute using as his text the well-known passage from the Mishna that teaches: “The world is sustained by three pillars:  Torah, worship, and deeds of lovingkindness” (Avot 1:2).  At his retirement, I returned the favor to Clark by quoting another passage from the same source:  “The world is sustained by three pillars: justice (din), truth (emet), and peace (shalom)” (Avot 1:18).  Clarks’ scholarship resonated with all three of these elements:

  • It was propelled by a passion for Din, justice-seeking to rectify what two millennia of distrust and misunderstanding have brought upon Western Civilization;
  • It was motivated by a quest for Emet, truth — grounded upon Clark’s unassailable pride and anchorage in the Christian faith and witness;
  • Finally, Clark’s work was predicated upon Shalom — the hope of Jews and Christians for a renewed harmony between two peoples who share a common spiritual ancestry, and who are constantly called upon to renew our understanding of covenant.

Clark’s work was both diagnostic and prescriptive. Diagnostically, he examined the fundamental issues that over the centuries caused Christians and Jews to drift apart, to become antagonists, rather than co-protagonists in the drama of salvation.  Clark offered us a treasure chest of scholarly information, but at the same time, he never lost sight of the main task, which is transformation and healing.

Even as it was diagnostic, Clark’s work was prescriptive.  Several of his books (e.g. When Jews and Christians Meet, Interpreting Difficult Texts, etc.)  are, in the best sense, manuals, practical guides.  They provide clergy and educated laity with a deeper appreciation of a Christianity that is aware of its Judaic roots, while maintaining its historic and theological integrity.

Sandy and I were touched to be honored with the dedicatory page of Clark’s book, co-authored with Ronald Allen, Preaching the Gospels Without Blaming the Jews (the first volume of a trilogy Lectionary Commentary).  The dedication reads: “In honor of Rabbi Dennis Sasso and Rabbi Sandy Sasso, companions and guides in the rapprochement of synagogue and church.”  It is we who have been honored by their example, collaboration, and fellowship.

In significant ways, Clark was what Jewish tradition would call Hasid Umot Ha’olam, “a Righteous Gentile.”  He was a loving critic and a faithful friend.  His scholarship was vivid and vital. It drew on the past, but it remained relevant to the present and conscious about shaping the future.  Clark’s labors were timely reminders to the naïve and complacent that the virus of prejudice and the plague of antisemitism are easily reactivated.

Clark prodded Jews and Christians to re-examine our sources and traditions, to ponder our mutual tasks, to consider our common agendas and our particular responsibilities, not by overlooking differences, but by respecting them; not by filling the gaps, but by bridging them.  Clark believed that religion is urgent and relevant business.  Churches and synagogues are not museums of dead ideas, but laboratories for testing and improving the human condition.

Clark called upon Christians not only to confront squarely the implications of the Holocaust, but to understand the meaning of the modern State of Israel as a tangible symbol of renewal, rebirth and continuity for the Jewish people.  He encouraged Christians to talk to Jews as Jews of flesh and blood; not theologized Jews, but living members of the community of Israel, historic and present.  As a faithful Christian, Clark sought to teach Christians and Jews about Jesus, both the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith, in ways that are historically accurate, intellectually consistent, and spiritually compelling.

The ancient rabbis taught Ase l’kha rav uk’ne l’kha haver — “Find yourself a teacher and make for yourself a friend” (Avot 1:6).  It was my good fortune to have had in Clark a teacher and friend, master and colleague, mentor and partner.  Clark and I would have long conversations on Alfred North Whitehead, and Mordecai Kaplan, our respective philosophic patron saints.  Delving into that “process” of discourse over a glass of wine or scotch would elevate our joy and cause their “spirits” to live on!

As a Process thinker, Clark reminded us that “everything exists in relationship to everything else.”  At a time when we are becoming increasingly divided and polarized, religiously, morally, and politically, when we seek to define others as competitors and adversaries rather than as partners and allies, Clark Williamson modeled a discourse and modes of thinking that are, as the titles of two of his books suggest, A Mutual Witness and A Way of Blessing, A Way of Life.

About the Author
Dennis Sasso is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, Indiana.
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